The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Archive for October 21st, 2010

scenes familiar, and loved

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Exhausted, determined to return to my lonely paths and isolated experiences, the only solace possible for an Outsider such as myself is amongst the tomb legions. Exertion and social obligation has brought me, repeatedly within the last few months, amongst the vivacious and brightly lit corridors of the human infestation and forced me into uncomfortable and uncontrolled interaction with those who thrive in such circumstance. Gaunt yet flabby, the squamous shadow of your humble narrator is cast comfortably in only one place- the fossilized heart of this Newtown Pentacle.

Welcome back, to Calvary.

from wikipedia

Calvary Cemetery is located at 49-02 Laurel Hill Blvd. in Woodside in the New York City borough of Queens, New York. The cemetery is managed by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. It is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in the United States. In 1847, faced with cholera epidemics and a shortage of burial grounds in Manhattan, the New York State Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act authorizing nonprofit corporations to operate commercial cemeteries. Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral trustees had purchased land in Maspeth in 1846, and the first burial in Calvary Cemetery there was in 1848. By 1852 there were 50 burials a day, half of them the Irish poor under seven years of age

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At the center of Calvary Cemetery, First Calvary that is, is a concrete temple which functions as a mortuary chapel in addition to maintaining an abbreviated schedule of Mass. The noted Catholic architect Raymond F. Almirall, responding to the request of Archbishop Farley in 1903, designed this beaux arts masterpiece to be constructed for the then princely sum of $200,000. Farley conceived of this place, and the subterranean structure beneath it, after a trip to the Holy See in Rome.

for more on Archbishop Farley, from google books

In 1884 Pope Leo XIII made him private chamberlain with the title monsignor, and Cardinal McCloskey appointed him permanent rector of the church of Saint Gabriel, New York, where he remained until he was made archbishop. In 1891 he was madevicar-general of the archdiocese of New York. In 1892 he was made domestic prelate to Leo XIII, and in 1895 prothonotary apostolic, all of which positions gave him special privileges. In December 1895 he was consecrated titular bishop of Zeugma, and became assistant to the archbishop of New York. When the see of New York became vacant by the death of Archbishop Corrigan (1902), the lists of names sent to Rome by the suffragan bishops and permanent rectors each had at the head the name of Bishop Farley as first choice for archbishop. He received his appointment from Leo XIII, but the pallium was conferred under Pius X, on 15 Sept. 1902. He was the fourth archbishop of New York and governed one of the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the world. He was the metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of New York, which is composed of eight dioceses outside the archdiocese which includes also the Bahama Islands; six in the State of New York and two in New Jersey. The author of the ‘Life of Cardinal McCloskey,’ Archbishop Farley was also a contributor to various magazines, and took great interest in movements for the social welfare of the city. He was created cardinal by Pope Pius X, 27 Nov. 1911. At the time of his death (1918) the archdiocese of New York comprised a Catholic population estimated at 1,350,000; 1,117 priests; 388 churches; parochial schools attended by 91,140 children; 25 orphanages; 27 hospitals, and other institutions, benevolent and educational.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Beneath the chapel, as it was designed, there is meant to be a two square acre catacomb whose only connection to the surface world is a shaft which rises some fifty feet to the surface. The Chapel itself utilizes the normal cruciform plan favored by the Roman Catholics since antiquity, and is some 60×120 feet, and a cupola rises some 90 feet above level ground and is crowned by a statue of the “Risen Christ”.

The cavern beneath the chapel is similarly in a the shape of a cross and designed as a mausoleum for the fallen priests of the city.

from google books, a popular mechanics article about the place

From the architect’s point of view, the most unusual feature is the method of construction of the dome and the groined vault on which it rests, both of which are regarded by experts as feats in reinforced concrete construction. The dome is 40 ft. across and the height from the floor to the lantern is 38 ft. It rises 50 ft. higher from that point and its total weight is 360 tons. The vault has eight penetrations, four large and four small, and both the lining of golden yellow brick and the pink Minnesota sandstone trimmings are held in place simply by adhesion to the concrete. In order to build this dome, it was necessary to build a falsework with all the accuracy of a mould, so that the brick could be laid against the forms, and the concrete with its steel reinforcement placed in the moulds. When the concrete had set, the falsework was removed, and the great dome stood as an imposing architectural crown to the structure, as well as a feat in construction.

The crypts or catacombs are for the burial of the priests of the diocese of New York, under the charge of which the cemetery is maintained. At present, but one section of the catacombs has been completed with accommodations for twenty-four bodies in the concrete niches. But the section can be extended underground in four directions, and at any time an addition for seventy-two more bodies can be made. For a cryptal burial there is a lift set into the floor of the chapel to lower the body to the level of the crypts.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Despite my mongrel familiarity with this place, your humble narrator has always avoided entering the chapel due mainly to a combination of cowardice and empathy.

Imagine the reaction of some wholesome priest or grieving parishioner when seeing this scuttling alien shamble into their sanctum sanctorum. They might look up and see an odd creature in a dirty black raincoat, with its widely separated glassy eyes and tightly stretched fish belly white skin betraying the presence of yellowing bone and rotting organ beneath, and question the faith that keeps them here. How could a merciful god allow an abomination such as myself to exist- a furtive fuligin clad  thing stinking of the Newtown Creek’s corruptions- let alone enter the most hallowed ground in the Archdiocese while the thermonuclear eye of god still shines down from on high? Certainly at night such manifestations of the macabre can be expected, but during the day?

It’s usually best for all that I remain at the side of the room, the rear of the bus, and near the end of the line- lest lightning strike another in error.

from wikipedia

The Rural Cemetery Act led to Queens being a borough of cemeteries. Queens is home to 29 cemeteries holding more than five million graves and entombments, so that the “dead population” of the borough is more than twice the size of its live population. The large concentration of cemeteries on the border of Brooklyn and Queens is another effect of the law. Under the Act, each individual cemetery organization was limited to no more than 250 acres (1 km²) in one county, but some organizations circumvented that limit by purchasing larger parcels straddling the boundaries of two counties. As result, 17 cemeteries straddle the border between Queens and Brooklyn. As with Queens, the “dead population” of Brooklyn is estimated to exceed its living population. In 1917 a state legislator from Queens complained that the law and the concentration of cemeteries that it had produced resulted in more than one-fifth of Queens’ land being exempt from property tax. As of 1918 more than 22,000 acres (89 km2) of land in Queens were owned by private tax-exempt cemeteries. Under current New York law, all cemetery property is exempt from property taxation, but current law allows the governments of Brooklyn, Queens, and certain other New York counties to limit the establishment of new cemeteries within their boundaries.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Nevertheless, this day, I mustered the tiny sparks of manhood within me and drawing a sharp breath- entered the chapel. Which was… disappointing. “Rather mundane, and shabbily maintained given the pristine groundskeeping and manicured care given the monuments outside” was my initial reaction. Also, it was rather dark within, and I was forced to use the camera flash in addition to setting my camera to a high ISO setting. Notice, if you would, the lack of dust in the air of the place- which would be catching and reflecting the flash back at the lens- backscatter as its called.

This is a rather important point, as we’ll discuss later on in the post.

from wikipedia

The term backscatter in photography refers to light from a flash or strobe reflecting back from particles in the lens’s field of view causing specks of light to appear in the photo. This gives rise to what are sometimes referred to as orb artifacts. Photographic backscatter can result from snowflakes, rain or mist, or airborne dust. Due to the size limitations of the modern compact and ultra-compact cameras, especially digital cameras, the distance between the lens and the built-in flash has decreased, thereby decreasing the angle of light reflection to the lens and increasing the likelihood of light reflection off normally sub-visible particles. Hence, the orb artifact is commonplace with small digital or film camera photographs.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My main concern was finding the possible location of the fifty foot shaft mentioned in the paragraph above, which is meant to be at the center of the building. The mosaic floor has obviously suffered the effects of use and a century of weathering, but there was this metal edged structure in it that was roughly the size and shape of a standard coffin. Unless I’m missing my guess, this is the hatch to that shaft.

I have been wrong before, so don’t take my word for it, but according to my researches, this is where it SHOULD be- and it fits the description as put forward in the Popular Mechanics article linked to above.

from wikipedia

The first place to be referred to as catacombs were the underground tombs between the 2nd and 3rd milestones of the Appian Way in Rome, where the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul, among others, were said to have been buried. The name of that place in late Latin was catacumbae, a word of obscure origin, possibly deriving from a proper name, or else a corruption of the Latin phrase cata tumbas, “among the tombs”. The word referred originally only to the Roman catacombs, but was extended by 1836 to refer to any subterranean receptacle of the dead, as in the 18th-century Paris catacombs.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The cavern below is meant to house individually cemented cells for the dead clerics, and these individual resting places- as well as the ossuary that eventually houses their more enduring remains in the Italian and French manner- is lined with stone quarried from the domed hills of Vermont- a nearby northern state of sylvan wildernesses which produce and maintains a vast mythology even in this age of reason and ration.

One wonders why the alluvial deposits of the Green Mountain state were called upon to line and ornament this unseen chamber, and if it might have relation to the odd occurrences in and around Townshend Vermont in 1927 and 1928.


The whole matter began, so far as I am concerned, with the historic and unprecedented Vermont floods of November 3, 1927. I was then, as now, an instructor of literature at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, and an enthusiastic amateur student of New England folklore. Shortly after the flood, amidst the varied reports of hardship, suffering, and organized relief which filled the press, there appeared certain odd stories of things found floating in some of the swollen rivers; so that many of my friends embarked on curious discussions and appealed to me to shed what light I could on the subject. I felt flattered at having my folklore study taken so seriously, and did what I could to belittle the wild, vague tales which seemed so clearly an outgrowth of old rustic superstitions. It amused me to find several persons of education who insisted that some stratum of obscure, distorted fact might underlie the rumors.

The tales thus brought to my notice came mostly through newspaper cuttings; though one yarn had an oral source and was repeated to a friend of mine in a letter from his mother in Hardwick, Vermont. The type of thing described was essentially the same in all cases, though there seemed to be three separate instances involved – one connected with the Winooski River near Montpelier, another attached to the West River in Windham County beyond Newfane, and a third centering in the Passumpsic in Caledonia County above Lyndonville. Of course many of the stray items mentioned other instances, but on analysis they all seemed to boil down to these three. In each case country folk reported seeing one or more very bizarre and disturbing objects in the surging waters that poured down from the unfrequented hills, and there was a widespread tendency to connect these sights with a primitive, half-forgotten cycle of whispered legend which old people resurrected for the occasion.

What people thought they saw were organic shapes not quite like any they had ever seen before. Naturally, there were many human bodies washed along by the streams in that tragic period; but those who described these strange shapes felt quite sure that they were not human, despite some superficial resemblances in size and general outline. Nor, said the witnesses, could they have been any kind of animal known to Vermont. They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would ordinarily be. It was really remarkable how closely the reports from different sources tended to coincide; though the wonder was lessened by the fact that the old legends, shared at one time throughout the hill country, furnished a morbidly vivid picture which might well have coloured the imaginations of all the witnesses concerned. It was my conclusion that such witnesses – in every case naive and simple backwoods folk – had glimpsed the battered and bloated bodies of human beings or farm animals in the whirling currents; and had allowed the half-remembered folklore to invest these pitiful objects with fantastic attributes.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Mission accomplished, and thankful that I happened into the place when it was deserted, your humble narrator decided to crack out a few more shots. Again, I messed around a little with exposure settings, hoping to combat the limited amount of available light within the structure. I emphatically state that beyond brightness and contrast, basic sharpening and color temperature adjustments- these shots are unaltered. The camera raw files are available for examination, and upon request, will be made downloadable.

from wikipedia

A camera raw image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of either a digital camera, image scanner, or motion picture film scanner. Raw files are so named because they are not yet processed and therefore are not ready to be printed or edited with a bitmap graphics editor. Normally, the image is processed by a raw converter in a wide-gamut internal colorspace where precise adjustments can be made before conversion to a “positive” file format such as TIFF or JPEG for storage, printing, or further manipulation, which often encodes the image in a device-dependent colorspace. These images are often described as “RAW image files”, although there is not actually one single raw file format. In fact there are dozens if not hundreds of such formats in use by different models of digital equipment (like cameras or film scanners).

Raw image files are sometimes called digital negatives, as they fulfill the same role as negatives in film photography: that is, the negative is not directly usable as an image, but has all of the information needed to create an image. Likewise, the process of converting a raw image file into a viewable format is sometimes called developing a raw image, by analogy with the film development process used to convert photographic film into viewable prints. The selection of the final choice of image rendering is part of the process of white balancing and color grading.

Like a photographic negative, a raw digital image may have a wider dynamic range or color gamut than the eventual final image format, and it preserves most of the information of the captured image. The purpose of raw image formats is to save, with minimum loss of information, data obtained from the sensor, and the conditions surrounding the capturing of the image (the metadata).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Palpable and real, visits to First Calvary are draining experiences, from a psychic point of view. You are surrounded by rich imagery and the text screeds that adorn the monuments, which means that whether you want to or not, the names of those who are interred here are being read subconsciously and forcing themselves into your mind. The territory surrounding the place is the tautologically fabulous properties which comprise the Queens bank of that maligned font of inspiration which is the Newtown Creek (The Creeklands, as I call them),  and the intricate steel lacing of bridge and rail that confines and contains whatever might be lurking beneath it. The experience is overwhelming, from a sensory point of view, and drains the experiencer of both cognitive alertness and physical energy. In short, after a 75-90 minute interval spent here, you want nothing more than to just lie down on the soft grass and sleep.

from wikipedia

Orb artifacts are captured during low-light instances where the camera’s flash is implemented, such as at night or underwater. The artifacts are especially common with compact or ultra-compact cameras, where the short distance between the lens and the built-in flash decreases the angle of light reflection to the lens, directly illuminating the aspect of the particles facing the lens and increasing the camera’s ability to capture the light reflected off normally sub-visible particles. The orb artifact can result from retroreflection of light off solid particles (e.g., dust, pollen), liquid particles (water droplets, especially rain) or other foreign material within the camera lens. The image artifacts usually appear as either white or semi-transparent circles, though may also occur with whole or partial color spectrums, purple fringing or other chromatic aberration. With rain droplets, an image may capture light passing through the droplet creating a small rainbow effect.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, here you are.

By the standards set by pop culture, the little white shape you see in the above shot at the “11 o’clock” position is a ghost orb, in a photograph shot at the Calvary Cemetery Chapel at 11:03 am on October 8th, 2010. Or dust.

What do you think? Click through to the larger size of the shot above at flickr and check it out at higher resolution.

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